CHICAGO (WOMENSENEWS)--Many of the dozen women who met in Beth Kanter's living room on the north side of Chicago last month know each other socially and even, to a degree, politically.
But the women, who were mainly in their 20s and 30s, don't often meet for focused talk about the state of the nation and the issues that they consider most crucial.
"Many of the people at my event are close friends who are politically active and share many of my values," says Kanter, who hosted one of 364 house meetings around the country on the night of Oct. 10 as part of a get-out-the vote effort by the Washington-based AFL-CIO and its community affiliate Working America. "However, it's not often that I can get together a group of articulate and engaged women to talk about the economic and social issues facing our society in general and women in particular."
In an election where control of both houses of Congress hinges on a handful of races--with 15 seats needed to swing the House and six for the Senate--unusual efforts like this AFL-CIO event have been made this year to spur women to the polls today.
Many voter-turnout efforts this year are targeting "drop-offs:" those voters who make it to the polls in a presidential election year, but don't bother with mid-term races.
In the two previous midterm elections, about 40 percent of eligible voters participated in 2002 and 38 percent in 1998, according to the nonpartisan National Journal. The two previous presidential election years, by contrast, drew 60 percent of eligible voters in 2000 and 64 percent in 2004.
If women--who registered and voted at a higher rate than men in 2004--turn out in large numbers today they could play a large role in determining partisan control of Capitol Hill.
"We thought if people could sit together, brainstorm and discuss these things, it would really energize them and motivate them to get out to the polls and take their friends, neighbors, daughters to get out there and vote," says Megan Jeronimo, national co-chair for the AFL-CIO event.
At Kanter's house the guests spent about two hours talking about health care, the economy and education, issues they had prioritized for discussion during an icebreaker exercise.
Each gathering that night was given a list of voters from a nationwide database. Kanter's group had a list of lapsed female voters in Ohio, to whom they wrote postcards urging them to vote.
Courting Single Women's Vote
Among female voters, single women and those who vote Republican are adding suspense to today's outcome.
While single women's participation rates grew in 2004, they voted at significantly lower levels than married counterparts. Also, 24 percent of unmarried female voters tend to drop off in midterm elections, compared to 20 percent for the overall population.
In 2004, unmarried female voters grew to 22 percent of voters, up from 19 percent four years earlier, according to Women's Voices Women Vote, a nonpartisan Washington-based group working to involve more unmarried women in the political process.
Fifty-nine percent of unmarried women voted that year, compared to 50 percent of single men. But a much greater percentage of married women--71 percent--voted. If unmarried women voted at the same rate as married women in 2004, there would have been 6 million additional voters, Women's Voices found.
Larger percentages of unmarried than married women registered to vote in the last election, but 31 percent of unmarried women failed to cast ballots versus 22 percent of married women.
"There's a lot of reasons why they don't vote," says Page Gardner, founder and president of Women's Voices. "Permanence of residence is one of the top indicators of voting behavior, and 36 percent of unmarried women move every two years compared to 14 percent of married women. And half of unmarried women make $30,000 or less, so they're economically stressed and have a harder time with getting time to vote or transportation."
To that end, Women's Voices has continued to hold voter-registration drives, and Gardner says its registration rates this year are similar to 2004.
Democrats Look for Married Moms
While unmarried female voters tend to lean Democratic, married women with children played a big role in the GOP narrowing the gender gap in the past two elections.
In 2004, 56 percent of married mothers supported George W. Bush, compared with 42 percent for John Kerry. But according to an Oct. 9 Associated Press-Ipsos poll, those voters are back in play this year.
The poll, which sampled 1,500 adults across the country, found married mothers evenly split when asked which party's candidates they supported in congressional races. In 2002, by contrast, 35 percent of such voters backed Democratic candidates, with 53 percent favoring Republicans. The same study found health care and the economy to be the priority issues for married mothers.
Studies by EMILY's List, the Washington-based political action committee which supports pro-choice Democratic women, echo those findings.
"We haven't done a national study, but looking at individual races we are definitely seeing the gender gap in a big way," says Karen White, the group's national political director. "One of the main things we're seeing is Republicans losing women from the levels where they were at in 2004; our research shows that many women who voted for Bush in 2004 are coming back to the Democratic camp, and many of them are married women with kids."
White says EMILY's List has invested nearly $20 million in congressional races, including a campaign targeting independent and drop-off voters.
This year's efforts to pinpoint certain segments of voters--so-called microtargeting efforts--mirror successful efforts by Republicans in the past, such as the GOP's 2004 appeal to drive up turnout by evangelical voters.
Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based journalist who has written for publications including Mother Jones, the New Republic, the Sydney Morning Herald, Chicago Magazine and Mental Floss.
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